Answers from Our Experts (3)
Cantonese and English are the official languages of Hong Kong, and many professionals are fluent in both. As a visitor, you'll have little (if any) trouble communicating with employees of your hotel, spa, restaurant or retail store in English — even in the markets, most vendors speak enough English to negotiate a sale (though you may need to ask for translation assistance if you have detailed questions about the product you're considering).
Since Hong Kong was under British rule until 1997, you'll find that many words are spelled in the style of Queen's English rather than American English. Even on the MTR (Hong Kong's subway system), the announcements are made with a British accent. Many MTR employees are bilingual in both Cantonese and English. Should your travel plans require use of a minibus, though, ask if the driver is bilingual. Hong Kong's bus system can be difficult to navigate at first, especially if the driver can't understand your questions.
Since Hong Kong is part of the Canton region of China, Cantonese is the primary language that's spoken here, followed closely by English and Mandarin. All three languages are taught in schools, with Cantonese typically being spoken in most Chinese households. Despite being handed over back to China from Britain in 1997, Mandarin still isn't prevalently used except for between Mainland visitors and locals. In fact, it can be more efficient to use English over Mandarin, as it's not a given that a local's Mandarin will necessarily be better than their English, and it's commonly expected that communications with a non-Chinese visitor will be conducted in English.
It's also fully possible to travel in Hong Kong without any Mandarin or Cantonese knowledge whatsoever — most of the local population has some fluency in English, and all major road signs, public transport maps and routes are written in both English and Chinese. The more off the beaten track you go, the more useful it will be to have a few Cantonese phrases under your belt, but you'll mostly be completely fine with English alone. Also, considering Hong Kong's multicultural nature, don't be surprised if you run into native speakers of all sorts of other languages, from French to Japanese to Hindi.
Cantonese is Hong Kong’s first language, but English is an official language as well, and it's widely spoken due to HK’s British history and its standing as an international business capital. Though not official, Mandarin is heard more and more these days, thanks to large numbers of visitors from mainland China, and Beijing’s increasing influence since 1997, when Hong Kong passed from British to Chinese control.
Beyond that, Hong Kong is a diverse city with a multicultural population. You’ll hear German, lots of French (this is one of the fastest growing groups in HK), Japanese, Korean, Tagalog, Indonesian...The list goes on.
It’s rare to find yourself in a situation where absolutely no English is spoken but it does happen occasionally, especially as you get further into Kowloon and the New Territories. Still, English is pervasive enough that Cantonese skills really aren’t necessary to get by here in Hong Kong.